Germany’s walk to becoming an immigration nation

By Jörg Kleis

This article is food for thought

Other than our usual blog posts where we give you practical advice on your job search in Germany, we are using this one to serve you some food for thought. During our daily coachings and communication there exists a desire from foreign professionals looking for jobs in Germany as to whether Germany is (already) a true immigration nation. This article is supposed to provide a realistic picture so you can see through the rumours and beliefs about working in Germany.

The reasons for said desire are manifold and root in comparable experiences of the people we work with: “Why can I not get my visa appointment with the German embassy within the next eight weeks?”, “How is it possible they say that the German population is aging and they need skilled people, and then don’t provide for the administrative powers to accommodate for that?”, “Why would nobody speak English at the Ausländerbehörde (foreigners registration office)?”

Germany is not a true immigration nation … yet

The truth comes first, the explanation will follow second: Germany is not a true immigration country. Correction, it is not a true immigration country yet. Or, more precisely, it is in the becoming of being a true immigration country - with all the hiccups and strings attached. This may not make you happy. But we are not here to tell you things you want to hear. As coaches we will always give it to you straight. (Which by the way is kind of a German thing.)

In order to understand the reasons for that, we won’t make it without a little history lesson. In fact, when you come to Germany and actively start to follow public debates, you are going to find that our debates are often related to our past, based on our reason of state, on certain legal principles, on our understanding of governance and civil rights.

Germany is no longer the same country it was sixty years ago

Since the end of World War II, Germany has experienced large migratory movements: war refugees and resettlements after 1945; guest worker recruitments, mostly in the 1960s from Italy, Greece and Turkey until an abrupt ban in 1973 in face of the oil crisis; the unification and integration of East Germany after 1990; integration of European labour markets, including the Eastern enlargement of the EU in the mid-2000s; and, most recently, the so-called European ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015 and thereafter.

That being said, Germany is no longer the same country it was sixty years ago, thirty years ago and, consequently, five years ago. The curiosity in all of this is that the de facto status of Germany being a country of immigration has until today not been fully accepted by the German society, meaning by a significant portion of the population. The major reason for this is that over decades, our Federal Government(s), our political leaders and representatives were unwilling to communicate that as a natural part of our societal development.

Germany has, de facto, been an immigration country from early on, but...

Researchers who evaluated the West German immigration experience found that Germany has been an immigration country since the beginning of the 1950s. Adjusting for population size, they found the inflow comparable to that of the United States at the beginning of the last century, when immigration there was at an all-time peak. So, Germany was, de facto, an immigration country from early on.

Nonetheless, it is accurate to argue that the country as a whole, i.e. when we talk about the majority of the German population and German society, did not want to be an immigration country. A look back in history shows that since the 1950s, Germany’s political elite has regularly and publicly rejected the idea of Germany being or becoming an immigration nation. There are various quotes, such as this one from 1992 by former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt: “You cannot subsequently turn Germany into a melting pot with it’s 1000 years of history since King Otto I. Turning Germany into an immigration nation would be absurd.” Interestingly, this notion cannot only be found among Germans without any trace of migratory movements in their family history, but even among first and second generation immigrants from Turkey, for example.

One can witness a lack of societal conviction in daily public communication

Until 2008, the Ausländergesetz (Work Migration Control Act) was the pertinent law. Under this policy, all those considered to be qualified (either by virtue of a university degree or a high salary) mainly needed a concrete job offer to be able to take up work in Germany. This policy continued and was refined through the next two governments under Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It was replaced by the said Fachkräfteeinwanderungsgesetz (Skilled Immigration Act) in 2020. When German parliament passed this most recent piece of legislation, there was a large debate as to whether the German title should be Fachkräfteeinwanderungsgesetz or Fachkräftezuwanderungsgesetz, the former meaning “migrate into”, the latter (only) meaning “migrate to” Germany and therefore implicitly or possibly having a less inviting sound.

One can observe a similar struggle of faith when analyzing the public diction used by our Federal Ministries. While the website of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs speaks of Germany willing to attract foreigners to enter the German labour market as an inevitable part of our development, the Ministry of the Interior has a whole FAQ section that sounds as if they tried to ease concerns about too many foreigners in Germany.

There are two opposing views to the issue

Evidently, there are two opposing views that explain this hair splitting of words: Should Germany, i.e. German society, accept the fact that Germany is - or at least shall be - a full immigration nation? Or should it not? These opposing views were upheld in 2018 during the drafting of the Skilled Immigration Act and they will continue to be upheld in the future. What is sad to watch is that the immigration opposition is not capable of sticking to sober and substantial reasoning, spreading rumors about welfare shopping and an increase in criminal acts either supported by the media or exploited by right-wing politicians. Talk about identity issues!

Until today, this quarrel is being reflected in a lack of proper legislation, a denial of the long-term challenges of an ageing population - Germany needs 260,000 immigrants every year until 2060 - and in ignoring the long-term needs of migrants. German conservatives will argue that one needs to give the majority of the population time to get used to the idea of Germany being an immigration nation. Fair enough, but if that had been the conservative plan to begin with, why have they not used the last 70 years for that? The truth is that there was and there is no plan. There only exists the constant of shying away from the debate, a debate that would be the necessary prerequisite to come up with a plan or mutual understanding, which leaves today’s problems of immigration unsolved - immigration taking place on a daily basis as you are reading this text.

Germany is not Germany - and that includes “German identity”

It is hard to describe why that is. Germany is not Germany. It is a diverse and sometimes contradictory system of 83 million and some people with different views, levels of education, backgrounds and biographies. One could ironically claim this to be a perfect breeding ground for any immigration nation. But, what has been missing is a necessary long and intensely conducted public discourse.

Germany has been shying away from that, and it may in fact be closely connected with the cautiously led debate on “German identity” – for whatever that may be. Granted, the “Zuwanderungsdebatte” (our debate on immigration) is closely connected with big questions: Can only countries be immigration nations that share a common “myth” of immigration, such as the United States, Canada or Australia? What is an immigration nation anyway? Who is “Germany” and who are “the Germans”? I like to refer to what we are currently witnessing as “Wachstumsschmerz”, a country-wide growth pain including all the successes and struggles connected with our history and our stance on immigration.

A new and extensive public debate is long overdue

You will hear high quality debates on this big issue on public radio, you will sometimes watch good ones on public television, but that is pretty much it. No public figure, especially not anyone who ever ran for a significant office at the federal level, has ever made this their political theme, has ever stimulated a large public debate that would last longer than a few tweets. As long as I have witnessed political debates about migration, I have not identified politicians, across party lines, who even though they understood the need for a more flexible and open labour market-oriented immigration regime, often acted helplessly and were either too defensive to fight openly for such a policy or were overwhelmed by political pressures, from the voters or their own party members.

So, what does this mean for today? There are those proposing a points system in immigration laws that provides transparency for migrants and the host country. Yes, they have been effective in screening and guiding mobility for regular migrants, especially in Canada and Australia. This enables a government to base the selection criteria on integration indicators such as education, language proficiency, job characteristics, the professions needed and social activities. In any case, governmental interference in a German company’s or entrepreneur’s internal affairs as to who they are intending to employ or allowed to give work to should be limited to a minimum.

Law is a process - this especially applies to immigration laws

Janko Ferk, an Austrian lawyer who wrote about Kafka’s “Process” aptly named one of his works “Law is a process”. Yes, law as the expression of democractic will, a majority’s opinion and a degree of societal conviction, takes time. And while it may be a habit of parliaments to sometimes sweep issues under the carpet or introduce legislation through the back door, we can only predict what the next twenty years will bring.

Since the general public has a broad misperception of the need of migrants and their economic effects, the policy-makers often only engage in low-dimensional or simplistic migration policies. Over the years, I have seen few German politicians who regard themselves capable of explaining the benefits of mobility for society to their voters. It is, however, the job of policymakers to make it transparent to voters where society’s long-term needs are. A new and extensive public debate on Germany as an immigration nation is long overdue.

This article draws from the following contribution worth reading: Klaus F. Zimmermann, Gaps and Challenges of Migration Policy Advice. The German Experience, chapter 8 in: Martin Ruhs, Kristof Tamas & Joakim Palme, Bridging the Gaps. Linking Research to Public Debates and Policy-making on Migration and Integration. Oxford University Press 2019, pp. 111-126.
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